It was on 24th October 1851 that the telegraph services was first introduced in India. It was in a small route between Calcutta, then capital of British India, and Diamond Harbour.
The history of telegraphs started long back. The electrical telegraph was invented in 1775. The first commercial telegraphs were introduced by the Western Railways in Britain in the 1830s. It was introduced in India in 1850s along with the railways. The telephones were not invented and the fastest communication system was the telegraphs. Only the Britishers were employed as telegraphist both in Railways and in Telegraph Offices in the initial stages due to its utmost importance and secrecy. The Britishers used the Telegraphs and Railways effectively to crush the First Independence War of 1857, which they called as ‘Sepoy Mutiny’. The Telegraphs grew fantastically during the second part of the 20th century and there were telegraph offices in all important cities and towns. In small places, the services were manned by the Postal officials called ‘Singnallers’, who kept the connection between the cities and the villages through telegraph wires.
Telegrams were sent by government as also by public to inform urgent and important news. The CTOs in the metro cities used to have about 100 or 200 telegraphists at the same time and round the clock. The telegrams were taken as official records in the court etc. It was authentic and clear. Since the charge for sending telegram was on the basis of the number of words, the message was constructed briefly with minimum number of words. The message may be of great happiness or that of sorrow like death or disease. The unions used to organise ‘telegram campaigns’ as a method of protest sending the same in large numbers to the concerned authorities.
After the growth of telephones and mobile services, the importance of telegraphs started to wane. By the second decade of 21st century it was almost limited to certain official messages. According to the government and the BSNL, there was much loss and it can not be continued as a viable service.
When the government decided to close the telegraph offices and telegraph/telegram services from 15th July, BSNL Unions put up strong protest and organised protest meetings. As President of the Union, I went to Mumbai and Kolkata offices and held press conferences for getting the support of the people at large for continuing the services.
Telegraph is a heritage service and accommodated in heritage buildings in the big cities. CTO buildings in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata etc. are heritage buildings, which have to be maintained as such. Lakhs and lakhs of documents connected with the history of the Mughal, British rule etc. are there in the old documents of the telegraph offices. Just like Western Court building in Delhi is occupied by a hotel, there are proposals to turn these heritage buildings also in to such posh hotels. You can see that many of the historic palaces have already been converted in to hotels.
A PLI case was filed in the court, but did not get any relief. It can only be said that the BSNL management had taken an unwise anti-people decision as also without taking in to confidence of the unions, which were trying to improve the services and make the company financially viable.
Despite all efforts to ensure that the telegraph services are kept as a token of the past, as in the case of trams in Kolkata, neither the government nor the BSNL agreed. It was finally decided to close it on 15th July 2013 forever.
Nobody expected what happened on the day. It was a pleasant surprise. Thousands of people gathered in front of telegraph offices to send their last telegrams to their near and dear ones. Even after midnight of 15/16 July, the queue did not stop and many people had to return disappointed that they could not send the last telegram. Their spontaneous response on the last day showed their love and appreciation of the telegraph services.
seven years are over after closure of telegraph services. The people have almost forgotten the ‘telegram’. The new generation may wonder what is ‘telegraphs’ and ‘telegram’? But those who knew telegram and sent or received them, still remember the same. For them it is nostalgia indeed!